SATURDAY, JULY 23
Papa used to say I had a memory like an elephant’s. According to him, an elephant never forgets. I’m not sure how my self-educated, tenant-farming grandfather knew what an elephant’s memory was like, but he sure was right about mine. Most folks didn’t believe me, but I could remember all the way back from when I was only a year and a half old, when my brother Fred Lee was born. That was June 1943.
I remember Mama stretched out on the bed, flat on her back, her body stiff like a board.
A blue and white patchwork quilt covered the bed.
Sweat covered Mama.
What I thought was a watermelon tucked beneath her faded yellow dress looked as if it had sucked all the fat from her spindly arms and legs and placed it in her stomach. Since her lips were so dry and crusty, I thought the watermelon had sucked all the life from her face, too.
With her head swaying from side to side, Mama moaned and whispered, “Y’all, hurr’up and fetch Miss Addie.”
My grandmother, Ma Pearl, standing as tall as a mountain, her thick arms crossed over her heavy bosom, shushed Mama from the doorway. “Hush, chile,” she said. “Save yo’ strength for pushing.”
Other than the tiny room reeking of mothballs and rubbing alcohol, that’s all I remember, because Ma Pearl shooed me to the front porch to watch for the toothless, bent-to-the-ground Miss Addie. After Miss Addie came hobbling along on that crooked stick she called a cane, I wasn’t allowed back into the house. But even from the porch I could hear Mama screaming. I thought the watermelon was eating her.
That night, I cried when I couldn’t sleep with Mama. She had the watermelon wrapped in a blanket and wedged against her bosom. From that day on, whenever I wanted her to hold me, she held that watermelon instead. I was convinced she loved the watermelon more than she loved me.
Twelve years and one month after listening to Mama give birth to what I thought was a watermelon, I was halfway through my six-mile trek to Miss Addie’s—?not to fetch her for Mama, but to deliver eggs to her from Ma Pearl—?when I heard a pickup rattling up the road, crunching rocks behind me.
Without looking, I knew the pickup belonged to Ricky Turner. And without a doubt, I knew Ricky was looking for trouble. He had a reputation for trying to run over colored folks just because he had a notion. He’d chased a nine-year-old boy named Obadiah Malone straight into the woods and all the way to Stillwater Lake with that rusted-out piece of junk only a few days before. So when the rock crunching grew louder and the engine clanking more intense, I flew one way and the egg crate another as I dove toward the grass. Not a second later, the pickup rumbled by, pelting me with rocks as I crouched near a tree. The eggs I was to deliver to Miss Addie lay scattered on the road, cracked, ready to sizzle in the midday heat.
As the truck rattled up the road, Ricky and his buddies leaned out the windows. They guffawed and hollered obscenities at me. Without thinking, I ran to the middle of the road, picked up the biggest rock I could find, and slung it at the disappearing truck.
That was a mistake.
I don’t know how they saw me. But when the truck stopped, I froze.
Ricky shifted in reverse.
In a cloud of dust, the truck roared back my way.
I scrambled toward the grass.
When the truck stopped right in front of me, my heart sputtered worse than the pickup’s engine.
Ricky poked his angry red face out the window and yelled, “Gal, don’t you know better’n to chuck a rock at a gentleman’s truck?” His face tightened like a fist as he released a stream of tobacco juice from his twisted mouth.
I wiped the brown spit from my legs and tried to stare at the ground like I knew I should. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Ricky’s scowling face. He snorted and spat again. This time at the ground.
“You could’ve broke my back winder,” he said. “Now, how you ’spect to pay for that?”
For the record, the back window of his dented-up Chevy was already cracked six ways. But my stomach was twisted in so many knots that I couldn’t have uttered that response even if I’d wanted to. Besides, three other boys sat crammed in the cab of that pickup. I recognized only one by name. Jimmy Robinson. The youngest son of the man whose place we lived on. And even I had sense enough to know that his fourteen-year-old self had no business riding around with the likes of twenty-year-old Ricky.
A freckled boy with a thin mustache and sweated-out orange hair leaned across Ricky. A grin revealed his tobacco-yellowed teeth. “What’s the matter, darkie?” he asked. “Cat got your tongue?”
Ma Pearl always said that one day my foolish tongue would get me into trouble. Without my permission, it poked itself right out of my mouth to assure the freckled boy that the cat didn’t have it. I bit it. But not before the freckled boy noticed.
He frowned, then leaned over and felt around on the floor of the pickup. When his hand came up, it held a beer bottle filled with black liquid.
“Uppity nigra!” he yelled, and hurled the bottle toward my head.
I ducked as it whistled past me and crashed against a tree.
Tobacco juice spewed in every direction.
The quartet in the pickup hooted, and Ricky gunned the engine. “Next time it’ll be a bullet, you coon!” he shouted over the clanking.
Shaking like a beanstalk in a windstorm, I huddled near that tree until the sound of the pickup disappeared. When I was sure they wouldn’t return, I grabbed my egg crate from the side of the road and scampered home. Miss Addie would have to make do without eggs this month, as I wasn’t about to make a second trip and take a chance on Ricky returning for more of his devilment.
Folks said that Ricky wouldn’t actually run over anybody. He just liked to give colored folks a good scare so we’d remember our place. Well, he’d given me, Rose Lee Carter, a pretty good scare. I vowed to never walk alone again, especially on a Saturday, when fools like him had just bloated their bellies with beer.
I’d been surprised to see Jimmy Robinson riding around with the likes of Ricky. His folks were what Ma Pearl labeled “good white peoples.” And he always seemed friendly when I went to the Robinsons’ house with Ma Pearl while she worked. He had once even been friends with Fred Lee, back when we were real little. He used to come ...